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What’s Game Writing Like?

Occasionally, I get people who ask me questions about my job, and I know others may also be interested. One bright young woman just sent me a bunch of questions, so I thought I’d share my answers here as well. 🙂

What’s it like to write computer games?
Well, that’s a big question. It’s a job, first and foremost, and you have to approach it professionally. From the outside, it may look like we have TONS of fun and goof off all the time, but that’s an illusion. It is tons of fun, but it’s also tons of work, long hours and strange hours sometimes. Working for a game company requires a lot of dedication.

You have to be available to work long hours, especially during crunch time. Crunch time happens in the final stages before the game is supposed to ship. It can last as long as a year prior to shipping, as everyone hunkers down and works like mad to implement all the great ideas we came up with in the first stages of design. It can be very stressful, which is why it’s so important to remain professional even though the people you work with are friends too.

We have core hours when we have to be here, because we have to be available for meetings or other people’s questions, and you’re required to be there during those times (although we do get plenty of personal time, like any other company).

Digital interactive storytelling
There’s been a movement growing for several years to incorporate more and better story in games. It has been a topic of discussion for some time, both because story is more likely to attract female gamers, but also because men have become more savvy in their tastes (sorry if that sounds sexist; it’s actually far more complex than that).

Story adds a dimension to a game that didn’t used to exist. I still hear many people say that players don’t care about story, they just want fast-action shooting and gameplay. I don’t believe this. I believe that if you build the story well, people will love it and will learn that a game can have good story and be enjoyable. We’re learning a lot about how to make in-game story fun, and part of that is reducing the word count you use to tell your story.

People don’t want to read as much as they want to experience. It’s the difference between writing a novel and writing a comic book. Games are more like comic books. The visual element is critical to the storytelling, and it’s an important tool that we can use. It hasn’t always been properly implemented in games.

What exactly do game writers write?
This varies per company, and it varies within a company as well. I can talk about what the writers at ArenaNet do. In any game, there is a ton of text. There’s the user interface (UI) text that you see in the hub, menus, and screens, such as skill titles (“Firebomb”), reward text (“You did it!”), tool tips (“This skill does awesome things to your enemy’s face.”), loading screens (“The map you’re entering has lots of mountains and bad guys.”), instructive text (“Kill those guys before they eat your head.”), and etc. All that is written by someone and rarely by the same someone at ArenaNet. For that matter, rarely by just one someone. All text goes through several edit passes that may result in changed wording.

In addition to UI text, we write dialogue, yes. Dialogue includes scenes (between two NPCs), talk lines (a one-off line said by an NPC), and conversations (an interactive tree of dialogue between an NPC and the player). We also write cinematics. We have two kinds of cinematics in the game: limited and full. The full cinematics are those that take over your screen and give you a cinematic view of what’s happening. They’re accompanied by a voice-over, usually in the PC’s voice. We also have limited cinematics, which also take over your screen, but which are short, animated conversations between two NPCs. These contain critical story information that we don’t want the player to miss.

At ArenaNet, the writers both write and edit. We produce a metric foo-ton of text daily, but we also edit all the text that others create. So, if someone is writing skill descriptions, they then send them to us for an edit pass. Thus, writers need to have a great command of the English language and of the company’s particular style.

Also, because we’re writing dialogue, we must also create NPCs. By this I mean we design NPC personalities. This sounds obvious, but it’s actually more important then you might imagine. In a scene or series of scenes, the personality and profession of the NPC gives a lot of information about the area and the world in general. For example, in an area where there are lots of farms, I wouldn’t want to populate it with villagers or pirates. I’d put in some farmers, some farmhands, some ranchers, some workers, etc. And their personalities would have to be reflective of the world, their race, their job, and their professions. In this way, I build the world a bit tighter so that when the player experiences it, it all comes together as a cohesive whole. The dialogue supports this as well, relaying information about an area, about history both local and world, and about what the player is supposed to do.

Every NPC serves a purpose, and every line of dialogue must build the world a bit more for the player. We base NPC personality on a combination of many factors, including but not limited to race, profession, social status, situation, and group affiliation. Perhaps surprisingly, gender is rarely a factor. Only the human race has different roles for different genders, and we downplay it. That’s a whole different discussion, though.

Basically, all text in Guild Wars 2 has to be concise, cohesive, and cool! It’s a writer’s job to make sure that’s the case.

Game Developers vs. Game Designers vs. Game Writers
To the best of my experience, “game developer” is an umbrella term used to describe anyone who works at a game company (although not necessarily including the business and marketing folk). They’re the people who contribute something to the development of a game. This could be art, text, code, world design, etc.

Game designers are those who work more closely with the content, such as story lines. They are usually the ones spawning NPCs and coding NPC movement, actions, etc. They “build” the world.

Writers work specifically with text.

Having said that, however, ArenaNet fosters a collaborative environment in which we all contribute to all areas of the game. We give regular feedback and make suggestions for how to increase the “cool factor.” Writers work very closely with designers. You might say we’re attached at the hip. 🙂

Historically, in my experience, game designers were the ones creating all the text for games. This is changing as the industry leaders begin to realize what trained writers can do for a game. At ArenaNet, the management has recognized that good writing has not historically been part of a game designer’s tool box. It is a learned skill set that is difficult to quantify. You can look at two sentences and see that one’s better than the other, but only a writer can tell you why it’s better. The addition of writers to a game design team raises the bar on the text and on the story. Writers bring a new level of polish to a game.

This is one of the challenges that writers face on any job, in any industry. Everyone thinks they can Write because any person who went through high school can write. They just can’t Write. And there is a difference. The skills necessary to be a really good writer are not learned overnight. Talent is never enough. The old standards of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation are important, critical even, but there’s more. There’s knowing how to write with intent. You have to be able to write things that maintain the world, support it even.

You can’t just be free creativity in motion. You have to be purposeful in your choice of topic, of words, and of tone. It’s all important, and if done right, it’s invisible to the player. They just float through the words you write, soaking them in and enjoying the world you’ve created for them to play in. You make the writing look effortless when you do a good job, which in turn causes others to think anyone can do it. A single word out of place, however, can drop the player out of their suspension of disbelief, and that’s the last thing you want to have happen.

What kind of writing do *you* do for games?
I do all of the above. I write UI, dialogue, scenes, conversations, cinematics, etc. What I don’t write, I edit for someone else.

Are all writers also designers for GW2, or do you serve two functions?
At ArenaNet, all writers are also game designers because we’re so involved in the design of gameplay. We’ve been involved in discussions about all levels of gameplay from the ground up. Technically, you could say we serve two functions, but the lines between the two are very blurry. We all meet early on and design what we want the gameplay to be like for a particular map or smaller area. Then, writers go off to do the text and designers go off to spawn the elements which writers then go through and polish. Ultimately, we’re on the same game design team. It’s more organic than that, but that gives you an idea. I don’t have the foggiest idea how to spawn an NPC, but I do go in and make sure his name is correct, his look is appropriate, and the words coming out of his mouth are the best they can be. So, technically, I’m a straight-up writer, but there’s more to game design than just spawning creatures and NPCs.

How did you break into game writing?
I did start by writing for tabletop games. My foot in the door was reviewing SHADOWRUN for White Wolf magazine. From there, I started writing freelance for MAGE: the Ascension and CHANGELING: the Dreaming. It was a great introduction to writing for computer games. I wrote quite a lot for White Wolf. 🙂 The full list of my rpg publications is here.

Two of the most important things you can do if you want to become a game writer are 1) work in any game-related area as much as possible, and 2) write as much as possible, preferably in a creative medium. What’s going to matter to an employer is that you can show you’ve got experience with games, that you love games, and that you know your trade (creative writing). This last means you need a pretty solid publication list.

You can begin building a publication list by writing fiction and articles for game magazines and e-zines, by writing reviews of games, etc. Any writing that is considered “fun” would also be good. You can write for websites, especially anything related to kids, games, and geek entertainment. Write for your school paper or for a club newsletter, for example. Be creative, and do what you love. If you love games, then just dive into them and find any avenue you can for writing about them. There are tons of websites out there that would love well-written articles, and each article will add to your pub list. Writing fiction is also good. You’ll need samples to show your interviewer, and fiction samples do well, especially if they’ve been published.

Is computer game writing an office job or work-at-home?
I can only speak for the jobs I’ve had, and they’ve all been firmly in-office. You have to be available for impromptu meetings and for answering coworkers questions. Although it is possible to telecommute sometimes, it’s far less productive. Furthermore, there’s the problem of security. It’s complicated setting up your home computer to access all the tools and documents you need to do your job. You have to be able to get into the game and to the area where we share files. I’m in the office every day, all day. 🙂

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